In Praise of Sonia Wachstein
by Joe Doyle

   The last few times I visited Sonia she wasn’t able to say anything. Last week the only words she was able to say was: “It’s absurd.” I had to agree. It was absurd for Sonia who had been so active and robustly healthy her whole life to be condemned to a sickbed at the end of it.
   On the other hand it was marvelous that Sonia had been so healthy for 93 years. Maryanne Brady (whom I see in the audience) told me all the Catholic ladies in her building were praying rosaries that Sonia not be run down by a car. The way she crossed the street against the light walking Polka, it’s a miracle she wasn’t.
   About two weeks ago, though, on one of her better days, Sebastian (Sonia’s volunteer German translator), Matthew Larson (who used to read to Sonia), Carol Asher, and Marjorie (Sonia’s hospice aide) were all gathered around Sonia’s bed. Sonia looked at all of us and declared: “Let’s organize ourselves, here. We should spend part of our time discussing music and art: what’s new and worth seeing in New York. We should spend some time discussing literature, and then we can devote the rest of our time discussing the current political situation.”
   In other words, Sonia mapped out a two- or three-hour conversation of the sort all of us gathered here have enjoyed with her. I was elated. One of us started talking, just like old times. Two minutes later Sonia was snoring. Her mind and her heart were willing but her body was too wracked with illness to take part.

   Sonia and I became friends because of such conversations. In 1983, Sonia’s best friend Marianne Blatt Iceland lived in New Jersey, an hour away by car. Marianne’s husband Ben was a friend of mine, so Marianne started asking me to take Sonia along to see her. We became friends talking about everything on those drives, theorizing solutions to the world’s problems. Sonia knew what she was talking about. She had a vast, precise knowledge of many parts of the world, gained from extensive travels and wide-ranging reading.
   On one of those trips to the Icelands’ house in New Jersey in March 1988, we were sitting outside, listening to music on the stereo admiring a fine vista of the Watchung Hills. Marianne walked up and said: “Sonia, dear, what were you doing 50 years ago, today?”
   Sonia protested: “How in the world should I know that?”
   Marianne said: “It’s March 11th. What were you doing March 11, 1938?”
   Sonia nodded in assent. That was the day the German army marched in to annex Austria.
   Sonia told us of listening to Prime Minister Schuschnigg’s radio speech to the Austrian people. Schuschnigg indicated he’d tried, but failed, to get help from his friend Mussolini. He’d tried to rally the Austrian army, but the army wouldn’t fight. Sonia hated Schuschnigg for suppressing so brutally the workers’ revolt in 1934, but here he sounded pitiful.
   Marianne broke in, recalling the chill she felt down her spine hearing Schuschnigg close with the words: “God help Austria.” German soldiers then took over the radio station.
   Sonia and Marianne both believed the workers would fight back the German army.
   Sonia’s mother was hosting a dinner party that night. One of their guests was a German doctor Sonia’s mother had befriended who’d fled Germany. The next day they learned the doctor, who was Jewish, had committed suicide. The next day the apartment buildings near Sonia were draped with huge Swastikas. It seemed people, neighbors, had been hiding them, waiting for the Nazis to appear. The streets were full of marching feet. In 24 hours Austria had ceased to exist.
   On the drive home, Sonia told me more. She told how her brother Max was imprisoned in Dachau. The Nazis couldn’t believe that she was the political one not her brother. Sonia told me about pleading with the Gestapo for her brother. She told me some of the stories that she tells in her memoirs. I see Jim Monaco in the audience; his press is bringing out Sonia’s fine story in English. October 24th I believe is the publication day.
   On those drives home from New Jersey and during many happy hours listening to her at her apartment, Sonia told me of devoting herself when she was young to the Socialist Party in Austria. She’d have me laughing and envious at the same time describing her socialist youth camps and the pageants they used to put on depicting “Class Struggle Through the Ages.” In the years following World War I, these pageants would end in a rosy depiction of socialism victorious, inexorably sweeping crypto-Nazi capitalists into the dustbin of history.

   Sonia was the kind of friend everyone should be lucky enough to have.
   When I started out teaching, for example, Sonia would give me advice. She was afraid I’d be a pushover for the kids. So she urged me to be stern at first and then ease up over the school year. She gave me the example of one her own teachers in second or third grade. Sonia’s best friend had dared to unroll a cough drop on the first day of classes. The teacher roared out at her: “You dare to eat FOOD in my classroom!” The little girl started crying. It was useless to explain to such a teacher that she had a sore throat and was just taking a cough drop. The next day, some one in class — not her friend — sneezed. The teacher stopped writing on the blackboard and whirled around as if she’d been affronted . . . but didn’t say a word, mollified to realize it had only been a sneeze . . . at which Sonia’s little friend started crying again.
   “What!” the teacher roared out: “You again? WHY ARE YOU CRYING?”
   To which her little friend gasped out between sobs, “Oh, teacher, you’re so good to us.”

   Sonia took me to operas to further my love of music. “The Tales of Hoffman,” “Don Giovanni,” “La Boheme” — I would read the synopsis from the program to Sonia before each act. She would listen gravely and say: “Well the plots of these things are idiotic — all of them — but there’s some exquisite music coming up.”

   I was lucky enough to have Sonia show me around Vienna. The weather that particular summer happened to be in the 90s, but Sonia was undeterred. We walked all over Vienna. I’d read out the street signs to her in terrible German. She’d decode my mispronunciations and say, “I believe, it’s just down this way.” She showed me coffee houses where she spent her time as a student and tried to explain the economics of a business establishment where customers order one coffee and sit at the same table all day. We went to an outdoor café which served up Sonia’s favorite straw mushrooms in crepes. She took me walking in the hills overlooking Vienna. We saw the Bauhaus architecture of the housing complex at Karl Marx Hof Platz. And Sonia showed me the steps of the University of Vienna.
   When Sonia was a student there, Nazi youth groups would periodically seize Jewish students drag them down the halls and throw them down those steps of the university. The socialist students would meet and decide next time they were going to do something, but somehow they never did.

   One of the nicest things about being friends with Sonia was getting invited to dinner parties. Sonia had interesting friends of all sorts. At one of those parties I — along with three or four other people as I recall — were rewashing wine glasses that weren’t quite useable and a murmur started circulating: “Wellman met Eichmann.” “Wellman knew Eichmann.” Wellman was one of Sonia’s guests. I didn’t think this was quite right. “Wellman shouldn’t be at this party,” I was thinking, “if he knew Eichmann.” Somebody took me aside and assured me there was more to the story and I should talk to Wellman about it. Heinz Wellman agreed to see me a few days later. Sonia had greatly encouraged me by this time, telling me: “1) Wellman is Jewish. And 2) Wellman knows everything. There isn’t anything Wellman doesn’t know, about anywhere on the globe.”
   It turned out that Sonia’s dinner guest Heinz Wellman had been a travel agent, partner in a big agency in Berlin. (Like Sonia with her Ph.D. and many of Sonia’s crowd he was extremely well-educated — having studied law prior to becoming a travel agent.) It turned out after Kristallnacht, Wellman’s travel agency was the only Jewish travel agency left in Berlin. Knowing that Wellman was Austrian, Eichmann paid a business call on Wellman, grandly proposing that Wellman make travel arrangements to get all of the Jews out of Austria. The Nazis were all for it, at first.
   The problem, Wellman explained to me, was with places like the United States. Nobody would take the Jews Germany wanted to get rid of. Visas and passports could not be obtained.
   That was what a dinner party at Sonia’s house was like. You met extraordinary people; the dishes usually needed a little extra washing; and sometimes you ended up with food for thought for life.

   I count myself lucky for having known Sonia. She was extraordinary. Sad as we are today not to be able to look forward to more freewheeling, wide-ranging discussions of the state of the world with our friend Sonia — to live to be 93 should really be cause of celebration.
   Sonia had a gift for striking up a conversation with anyone she met. She spoke so many languages she could always find someone in her train compartment with whom to strike up a conversation. She enjoyed herself hugely. She wasn’t afraid to travel anywhere. Sonia lived a very good life.

August 14, 2001


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